February 6, 2010
Anthony Westbury: Big changes needed in Fort Pierce City Hall
By Anthony Westbury
"Today is about the future. We need to talk about the city's and the community's direction in the future."
Fort Pierce City Manager David Recor opened Friday's strategic planning session for the city commission with that pronouncement.
In more normal times, he could have simply been referring to the trials of running a city in terrible economic times.
Yet Recor was talking obliquely about what's happened in the city's beleaguered Community Services Department, and what the city should do about it.
The department has been under fire for months over whistle-blower allegations of misuse of funds, nepotism, favoritism and cronyism.
A city-ordered forensic audit seemed to confirm many of those accusations, and staff members may face criminal charges. So, the question now becomes: What do we do now and how do we go about it?
City staff drew up a proposal that diverts a portion of Community Development Block Grant entitlement money a year away from direct assistance programs and shifts it toward much-needed infrastructure improvements.
The suspended Community Services Department would remain inactive for the foreseeable future. Once questions about alleged criminal actions have been resolved, staff may be retrained on a new mission.
Commissioners were seriously divided about the changes.
The two District 1 members, Rufus Alexander and Reginald Sessions, seemed alarmed at the prospect of their constituents losing any financial benefits whatsoever. We are a poor city and this could seriously hurt people, they argued.
Commissioner Eddie Becht, on the other hand, was blunt about the dilemma facing Fort Pierce.
"The delivery system for CDBG loans is clearly broken. We need to task staff with fixing it so that it's fair and just to all."
Becht referred to a $250,000 mortgage loan awarded to a Community Service Department staff member. Wouldn't it have been better, he wondered, to give 10 people $25,000 in housing down payment assistance each, rather than giving $250,000 to one person?
Commissioner Sessions challenged Becht: "Are you interested in delivering the same product or do we need to change the product?"
"If we can't change the delivery system fairly and with justice to all, then I am in favor of changing the product," Becht answered.
City Manager Recor indicated that the results of the Department of Housing & Urban Development's criminal investigation into the department might hinge on how the city reacts. Business as usual simply isn't an option, Recor said.
"I cannot support going on with the same delivery system," Recor said. "That would not be an efficient way to go forward and I can't in good faith recommend that."
I agree. If the Community Services saga proves anything, it's that big changes are needed in the way City Hall conducts business. We cannot continue as if nothing has happened.
If we simply sit back and ignore the storm clouds, we risk both federal repercussions and spreading the stain of a bad reputation even further.
On the other hand, cleaning house on our own initiative would demonstrate a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances. I'm certain the city can emerge stronger than before from this, if the right path is chosen,
Yet that will require a commitment to real change, not just a sham version of it. I hope the city administration can keep thinking (and acting) outside the box; their future will depend upon it.
Anthony Westbury is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. This column reflects his opinion. For more on St. Lucie County topics, follow his blog at tcpalm.com/westbury. Contact him at (772) 409-1320 or firstname.lastname@example.org.